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If it be a true observation, that for a poet to write happily and well, he must have seen and felt what he describes, and must draw from living models alone; and if modern times, from their luxury and refinement, afford not manners that will bear to be described; it will then follow, that those species of poetry bid fairest to succeed at present, which deliver doctrines, not display events. Of this sort is didactic and descriptive poetry. Accordingly, the moderns have produced many excellent pieces of this kind. We may mention the Syphilis of Fracastorius, the Silkworms and Chess of Vida, the Ambra of Politian, the Agriculture of Alamanni, the Art of Poetry of Boileau, the Gardens of Rapin, the Cyder of Philips, the Chase of Somerville, the Pleasures of Imagination, the Art of preserving Health, the Fleece, the Religion of Racine the younger, the elegant Latin poem of Brown on the Immortality of the Soul, the Latin poems of Stay and Boscovick, and the philosophical poem before us; to which, if we may judge from some beautiful fragments, we might have added Gray's didactic poem on Education and Government, had he lived to finish it; and the English Garden of Mr. Mason must not be omitted.
Pope informs us, in his first preface to this Essay, "that he chose this epistolary way of writing, notwithstanding his subject was high, and of dignity, because of its being mixed with argument, which of its nature approacheth to prose." He has not wandered into any useless digressions ; has employed no fictions, no tale or story; and has relied chiefly on the poetry of his style for the purpose of interesting his readers. His style is concise and figurative, forcible and elegant. He has many metaphors and images, artfully interspersed in the driest passages, which stood most in need of such ornaments. Nevertheless there are too many lines in this performance plain and prosaic. The meaner the subject is of a preceptive poem, the more striking appears the art of the poet. It is even of use, perhaps, to choose a low subject. In this respect Virgil has the advantage over Lucretius; the latter, with all his vigour and sublimity of genius, could hardly satisfy and come up to the grandeur of his theme. Pope labours under the same difficulty. If any beauty in this Essay be uncommonly transcendent and peculiar, it is brevity of diction; which, in a few instances, and those perhaps pardonable, has occasioned obscurity. It is hardly to be imagined how much sense, how much thinking, how much observation on human life, is condensed together in a small compass. He was so accustomed to confine his thoughts in rhyme, that he tells us he could express them more shortly this way than in prose itself. On its first publication Pope did not own it, and it was given by the public to Lord Paget, Dr. Young, Dr. Desaguliers, and others. Even Swift seems to have been deceived. There is a remarkable passage in one of his letters: 'I confess I did never imagine you were so deep in morals, or that so many and excellent rules could be produced so advantageously and agreeably in that science, from any one head. I confess in some places I was forced to read twice. I believe I told you before what the Duke of
said to me on that occasion; how a judge here, who knows you, told him, that, on the first reading those Essays, he was much pleased, but found some lines a little dark; on the second, most of them cleared up, and his pleasure increased; on the third, he had no doubt remaining, and then he admired the whole."
The subject of this Essay is a vindication of Providence; in which the poet proposes to prove, that, of all possible systems, Infinite Wisdom has formed the best that in such a system, coherence, union, subordination, are necessary; and if so, that appearances of evil, both moral and natural, are also necessary and unavoidable: that the seeming defects and blemishes in the universe conspire to its general beauty: that as all parts in an animal are not eyes; and as in a city, comedy, or picture, all ranks, characters, and colours, are not equal or alike; even so excesses and contrary qualities contribute to the proportion and harmony of the universal system: that it is not strange that we should not be able to discover perfection and order in every instance; because, in an infinity of things mutually relative, a mind which sees not infinitely, can see nothing fully. This doctrine was inculcated by Plato and the Stoics, but more amply and particularly by the later Platonists, and by Antoninus and Simplicius.
In illustrating his subject, Pope has been much more deeply indebted to the Theodicée of Leibnitz, to Archbishop King's Origin of Evil, and to the Moralists of Lord Shaftesbury, (particularly to the last,) than to the philosophers above mentioned. The late Lord Bathurst repeatedly assured me, that he had read the whole scheme of the Essay on Man, in the handwriting of Bolingbroke, and drawn up in a series of propositions, which Pope was to amplify, versify, and illustrate. In doing which, our poet, it must be confessed, left several passages so expressed, as to be favourable to fatalism and necessity, notwithstanding all the pains that can be taken, and the artful turns that can be given to those passages, to place them on the side of religion, and make them coincide with the fundamental doctrines of revelation. How could Pope, in the letter which he wrote to Racine, the son, 1742, venture to say, that his opinions were exactly conformable to those of Pascal, who throughout all his Thoughts, is incessantly inculcating the absolute necessity of believing that man is in a fallen and degraded state; an opinion which is strongly denied in every line of the Essay on Man ? And which opinion of Pope, Racine has justly stated in the following lines: La Religion, Chant 2 :
Quelque abstrait raisonneur, qui ne se plaint de rien,
Nous place à notre rang pour orner son tableau."
Pope has indeed inadvertently borrowed some passages from Pascal, but they have only served to make this system more inconsistent; for how can man be a "chaos of thought and passion all confused, and yet be as perfect a being as he ought to be ?" The doctrine obviously intended to be inculcated in this Essay is, "That the dispensations of Providence in the distribution of good and evil, in this life, stand in no need of any hypothesis